‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert Read Along: Part II

This read along is hosted by CJ at ebookclassics (who is hosting the second check-in post for Part II of the novel) and Juliana at Cedar Station.

1. First of all, what did you think about Part Two?

‘Madame Bovary, once she was in the kitchen, made for the fireplace. With the tips of her fingers, she took hold of her dress at the knee, and, lifting it just to her ankle, held out to the fire, above the leg of mutton on the spit, a foot clad in a small black boot. The flames lit every inch of her, a harsh brilliance penetrating the weave of her dress, the fine pores of her white skin and even her eyelids that she blinked repeatedly’.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.74

I absolutely adored Part II of Madame Bovary. Charles and Emma have left their tiny provincial life in Tostes behind and set out on a new adventure in Yonville-l’Abbaye. Not only is this move significant in terms of a new beginning but it is also the point where Emma traverses the boundary between inaction and action – she attempts to take her happiness into her own hands with devastating consequences. I also enjoyed the switch to the direct address of ‘you’ at the opening of Part II: ‘You leave the main road at La Boissière and you carry on along the slope as far as the top of the Côte des Leux, where you can see the whole valley’ (pg.65). It is almost as if Flaubert is inviting us to join in and witness the events that are about to unfold. We become the passive audience to the inevitable climax of Emma’s frustrations.

However, I do continue to feel sorry for Emma. As the above quote highlights, she is constantly objectified by the men around her. Even Léon, whom we meet when Charles and Emma first arrive in Yonville, cannot help but view her in these terms, despite their burgeoning platonic friendship. It is not a coincidence that Emma’s leg and a leg of mutton appear next to each other in the same sentence. Flaubert equates this desire for Emma as a hunger, which is almost violent in its portrayal. This can be seen even more when we come across the character of Rodolphe – a typical rake-like figure, a womaniser.

‘Monsieur Rodolphe Boulanger was thirty-four years old; his temperament was brutal and his intelligence shrewd; having been with a large number of women, he was something of an expert. This one he had found pleasing; so he was dreaming about her, and her husband’.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.121

It is appalling to watch how easily Rodolphe is able to manipulate Emma. He knows exactly what she wants to hear and plays this to his advantage. I found it difficult to read and wished that Emma would see through this, but she is a victim of her time and her sex. Having been brought up with no maternal figure, in the presence of males her whole life who only view her worth in terms of her beauty, and having read only romance and sentimental fiction it is no wonder that she falls for Rodolphe’s masquerading. Although I find her admirable, to a certain extent, as she is not afraid to seek out her own happiness with both hands, I find it sad that this is the only choice available to her.

2. Some of us wondered why Emma wasn’t more interested in embracing a maternal role. She quickly loses interest in her child when she can’t afford to buy luxurious baby items and faints upon hearing she had a daughter instead of a son. Why do you think Emma prefers to seek happiness in romantic love and not give maternal love a chance?

‘She wanted a son; he would be strong and dark, she would call him George; and this idea of having a male child was like an anticipated revenge for the powerlessness of her past. A man, at least, is free; he can explore each passion and every kingdom, conquer obstacles, feast upon the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Both inert and yielding, against her are ranged the weakness of the flesh and the inequity of the law. Her will, like the veil strung on her bonnet, flutters in every breeze; always there is the desire urging, always the convention restraining’.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, Pg.82

Emma is acutely aware of the inequalities between the sexes. She understands the dichotomy between acceptable forms of male and female behaviour. Whereas men can express their sexuality freely, women who do so risk their reputation. Perhaps Emma doesn’t want to bring a young girl into this world – a young girl who will suffer the same way she is doing. Her only hope is that she gives birth to a son. This way she won’t feel guilty for inflicting the same fate onto her child. However, I get the feeling that she doesn’t plan for the possibility of giving birth to a daughter. This may be why she faints. She has no idea how to look after a girl as she struggles to come to terms with her own identity as a woman.

I also think it is brave of Flaubert to portray a non-maternal heroine as his protagonist. I don’t find it shocking that she disregards her daughter if you consider the circumstances in which she has conceived the baby. She is in a loveless marriage, which has shattered her allusions of life; she is seriously unhappy, even depressed, and unsatisfied; she has never known what it feels like to be loved by a mother and, therefore, cannot be the mother her child needs her to be. She is inherently selfish, which would be fine if she lived in today’s society where women have more choices about how they live their lives, yet she doesn’t and it is heartbreaking to think about how much harder she is making her daughter’s life.

3. We all seem to agree that Emma’s behaviour is foolish, yet why do we still sympathise with her character?

I find it hard to separate Emma’s character from the society in which she has been born in to. Despite her selfishness, naivety and stupidity, I cannot help but feel that she has no other options open to her, other than adultery, for trying to fulfil her life – and she doesn’t have to try very hard for the opportunity to arise. She is a woman who, when faced with a desperate situation, decides to take control of her life through any means that she can and I cannot fault her for that. I also find her obsession with romantic fiction – which would, no doubt, have been written by men – damaging to her health. It portrays skewed and unattainable notions of romantic love which has tainted her real-life experiences. She is greatly disillusioned with life and falls into what we can only assume is depression towards the end of Part II – a serious mental illness which would not have been diagnosed in those times.

4. Although Emma becomes careless and the whole town seems to know about her infidelity, Charles seems none the wiser. Even when he finds the note Rodolphe wrote to Emma ending the affair, he believes their relationship is platonic. Is Charles just fooling himself, is he simply naïve? Can he be blamed for Emma’s behaviour?

Charles is just as naive and foolish as Emma is, but, unlike her, he is incapable of holding romantic ideals. He loves her blindingly and unreservedly and never questions, or perhaps doesn’t even see, her obviously transparent lies. I am inclined to think that Charles is partly to blame for Emma’s behaviour as he makes no attempt to try and see things from her point of view, yet I cannot help but feel that he is also a victim of this mismatched marriage. It is because of Emma’s (and Homais’) almost bullying encouragement that he performs the botched surgery on Hippolyte’s clubfoot. This is one of the scenes in the novel that stayed with me on my first reading and will continue to stay with me. I cannot forget the way Charles is forced into performing a questionable surgery which goes horribly wrong. I remember how the festering leg, dying of gangrene, has to be eventually amputated by a proper doctor and with this failure goes any hope that Emma will find anything likeable in Charles again. I cannot forget her feelings of disgust at his incompetence, which becomes the point of no return for Emma’s destructive behaviour.

5. We all seem to be reading different translations of Madame Bovary and some of us wondered whether we are reading the story together in the same way. Do you think this matters? What translation are you reading?

I think a good translation is extremely important when reading a novel where the original text is not in English. The copy I am reading is the Penguin Classics version, which was translated by Geoffrey Wall and first published in 1992. This was the version that was recommended by the professor of one of my modules at university so I am guessing it is a rather good one. Geoffrey Wall has made a note at the beginning that:

‘Translating afresh the already translated classic text, the translator is drawn into dialogue with his or her precursors. Though I was working on different principles, and though I found that I eventually disagreed with some of their most cherished effects, I have profited from the posthumous conversation of three previous translators of Madame Bovary: Eleanor Marx, Alan Russell and Gerard Hopkins’.

As Geoffrey Wall suggests, each translation offers something different to the reader. Certain passages may be given different effects which can influence your experience of the novel. They way words are placed or phrased in a sentence can change the meaning completely. However, I remember in our seminar on Madame Bovary there was a lot of discussion of how even a good translation can lose some of the original. Apparently there are subtleties in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary that have not been able to translate well and I would love to be able to read the original in French one day. Until then, perhaps it would be a good idea to read the different English translations to see what has been changed, omitted or added in.

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7 Replies to “‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert Read Along: Part II”

  1. Do you think the way she reacts to each disappointment is also influenced by the romantic fiction she reads? While I don’t want to dismiss her suffering as dis-ingenious, sometimes her reactions seem like a cliche that could come from a romance novel. After she becomes aware of her attraction to Leon, she seems almost get some satisfaction out of her severe denial of any kind of relationship with him.

    1. That’s a really good point. I think she probably doesn’t have any other point of reference for how to act and behave in those sorts of situations, like with her attraction to Leon. She hasn’t grown up with a mother-figure and, instead, grew up in a convent where she wouldn’t have had much interaction with those of the opposite sex.

  2. Very interesting observations! Everyone’s comments give me so much food for thought when it comes to Emma. It does make sense that Emma probably didn’t want to have a girl that would be subjected to the same restrictions and lack of freedom that she has endured most of her life. I just wish she tried to make something positive out of it, maybe try to invest some her passion into her daughter and encourage her to break free from some of those restrictions. Be a role model and champion. I also enjoyed the quote from Geoffrey Wall about translations. Ultimately, I wish I could read this book in French. I’m sure it’s the only way to experience Madame Bovary truly as Flaubert intended.

    1. I wish she made more of an effort with her daughter, it’s so heartbreaking! Though I get the feeling that she has no idea how to be a mother, it doesn’t come naturally to her. I took up French classes with the ultimate aim to read Madame Bovary in the original one day but I think that’s going to have to be a lifelong challenge!

  3. I really like your post. It’s sad the she thinks real life should be like the the novels she reads. I found it a bit crazy how she couldn’t observe those around her. For example, the elder Madame Bovary. Charles’ mother is clearly not happy in her marriage but finds other ways to live through it.

    I do agree about being able to read Madame Bovary in French. There are some things that translations cannot replicate. However, there are some that do a pretty good job. 🙂

    1. That’s very true, I guess she did have Charles’ mother in her life. Though Emma is so self-absorbed she probably didn’t even realise how unhappy the elder Madame Bovary was in her marriage. All she can see is her own dissatisfaction.

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